INDIANAPOLIS – More than 30 dangerous wild animal species – from alligators to bears and bobcats – will no longer be regulated by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
The agency recently sent letters to anyone with a wild animal possession permit saying that an appellate court ruling – and the Supreme Court’s refusal to review the case last month – means it has no authority to impose rules, restrictions or permits on legally owned wild animals.
The move means that hundreds of wild animals in the state are now completely unregulated, including several dozen particularly dangerous species.
"Many of those animals are dangerous – crocodiles and bears and tigers. It’s pretty concerning," said Sen. Mike Crider, R-Greenfield. "It’s something we have to address pretty quickly. I don’t understand what the proper process is."
He said he will file corrective legislation in January but wondered whether Gov. Mike Pence might be able to provide protection for the public with an interim executive order.
DNR spokesman Phil Bloom said there were 263 wild animal possession permits. The vast majority are for smaller animals, such as raccoons, squirrels and striped skunks.
But 38 of them were considered Class 3: 12 venomous snakes; eight black bears; seven alligators; six bobcats; two gila monsters; one wolf; one tiger and one cougar.
"The DNR has really protected public safety – keeping track of potential bad guys and knowing where the safety risks are in the state," said Lori Gagen, executive director of the Black Pine Animal Sanctuary in Albion.
"The DNR had everyone’s back, and now there is nothing. This ruling has stripped them of all their authority."
The Indiana Court of Appeals ruling related to whether the DNR had the authority to regulate or ban the hunting of deer behind fences on private property, a practice known as captive hunting. Attempts to reach a middle ground on the issue failed this session. Then the Indiana Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Even if lawmakers had come to agreement on high-fenced hunting, they had no idea the court ruling would affect wild animal possession permits, which are in administrative rules.
"This basically throws open the door," Bloom said. "It’s something that we regulated for a period of time in a very public and open process through administrative rules procedures. We’ll just have to see where it goes from here and what the will of the legislature is."
Many animals would still be covered under a federal U.S. Department of Agriculture permit, but not all of them.
For instance, the federal permit covers only mammals. But the state permit covered venomous snakes or alligators and crocodiles over five feet long.
Gagen said she received a letter because Black Pine had a wild animal possession permit for Gus – an alligator about 9 feet long.
She said the letter was very brief and did not reference what animals were affected. She became alarmed and immediately called for clarification.
Also, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires a federal license only if the person is exhibiting, breeding or selling the animals.
The state permit went further to cover anyone possessing wild animals simply as pets. It had extensive enclosure and care requirements for the animals, along with inspection powers.
The DNR is no longer issuing or regulating game breeder permits for animals such as pheasants, quail and deer. This was expected, but the extension of the court ruling to exotic wild animals has been surprising.
"Oh, my," Senate President Pro Tem David Long said when he heard the news. "Perhaps now that there is no jurisdiction whatsoever, we can make a definitive decision on what should happen. It’s all tied together, and the big picture is we need to have some sort of set of rules in place. Having nothing is worse than having something."